The slipper no longer fits for one of last year’s tournament Cinderellas thanks to an ill-timed fractured foot.
X-rays revealed Lehigh senior guard C.J. McCollum has a broken bone (fifth metatarsal) in his left foot that will sideline him for eight to ten weeks. McCollum suffered the injury in the first half of Lehigh’s loss to VCU on Saturday.
The direct implications of the injury can’t be overlooked or their significance in any way overstated. The Mountain Hawks may have to play the remainder of the regular season without their best player, the nation’s second-leading scorer and arguably the most valuable player in all of college hoops. For a team struggling to gel on the defensive end as is, Lehigh is in no position to balance the overbearing burden now flipped onto its offense—a once cohesive structure on the brink of collapsing without its linchpin.
By all metrics, the Mountain Hawks were a high-octane scoring engine when McCollum dictated the offense. The two-time Patriot League Player of the Year almost unilaterally rounded Lehigh into the top 3-point shooting team (44-percent) in the nation. His own pinpoint precision—he’s shooting 52-percent from long range—is a big reason why, but it’s certainly not the only explanation. After all, if you remove McCollum’s numbers from the equation, Lehigh is still shooting 41.4-percent from 3-point range as a team.
Despite only averaging a tick less than three assists per game—Mackey McKnight is charged with distributing—McCollum’s knack for drawing help defenders on dribble-penetration frees up open shooters. His magnetic presence turns live game situations into simulated shooting practice for teammates. With five pairs of eyes zoned in on him at all times, Lehigh’s role players can move liberally without the ball, often guarded by ghost defenders.
Why is Brett Reed comfortable employing a rotation that, with B.J. Bailey back, runs nine-deep? Because as long as No. 3 is on the floor, making life easier for the other four players in brown, every scholarship player on the roster is an asset. Extract McCollum from the equation and what once resembled quality depth will begin to look like a band of misfits instead.
Of course, Bucknell isn’t complaining. One fractured foot later and the Bison are in the Patriot League driver’s seat while the Mountain Hawks ride in the trunk without a seatbelt.
Bucknell may have been the best team in the Patriot League anyway; we’ll never know. The Bison, after all, run an equally efficient offense revolving around star big man Mike Muscala and one-up the Mountain Hawks with a superior team defense. Bucknell more than makes up the marginal difference between the two scoring aces with its superior size, more reliable secondary scorers and ability to get stops in key moments.
McCollum’s forthcoming absence eliminates the one fallback advantage Lehigh had head-to-head. The one leg the team has been standing on is now buckling because of a broken foot.
After squandering a ticket to the Big Dance on its home floor in a thrilling conference title game last March, don’t expect revenge-minded Bucknell to brood over Lehigh’s loss. The Bison have their own Cinderella story to rewrite.